General Election 2017

Democracy should represent and not evangelise

Violet’s Sam Willis looks into the diversity of Cambridge politics

Sam Willis

Canvassing reveals the diversity of thought in Cambridgemaxpixel

I can only suppose most lowly hacks have the fantasy of a regular readership, so you’ll excuse me when I apologise to my phantasmal followers for my lack of writing recently. By way of excuse, you’ll have to accept this surprise election. Like a true student, I donned the cap of activism and made for the doorsteps of Cambridge.

Much of the commentary here and elsewhere has either concerned itself with the media manoeuvrings of politicians, statistical oracles, and the occasional naked hunch. This is fair enough, and I’ve enjoyed it all as much as the next politics geek. But rather than add to that growing spread of analysis, I thought I might recount some of my experiences from the doorstep.


Mountain View

Poll shows huge lead for Labour among Cambridge students

Besides one slightly alarming encounter, replete with finger-jabbing and the cry that Corbyn would allow a certain gentleman’s home to be bombed, the experience has been a real pleasure. It is, in a way, a true privilege to speak to so many people, to be afforded a small but precious glance into their lives, to appreciate the wonderful patchwork that makes up our society. I’m not even talking about the more obvious markers of diversity like ethnicity or sexuality. I’m talking about the wonderful diversity of opinion that sees households split down the middle, that sees men and women of near-identical circumstances swing in different directions. It is humbling, but also just great fun. It is certainly something I would recommend.

As for how those doorstep conversations went, drawing them into a larger story is and always will be difficult. We all know the Cambridge race is between Labour’s Daniel Zeichner and the Liberal Democrats’ Julian Huppert. From my experience, I couldn’t begin to argue objectively in any strong terms who will win. That doesn’t mean, however, I can’t tell you what I encountered, albeit heavily caveated.

"It is, in a way, a true privilege to speak to so many people, to appreciate the wonderful patchwork that makes up our society"

If you walk through Newnham ward you’d probably assume from all the diamond signs that it’s a pretty strong Lib Dem area. You’d be right. My experience canvassing there pretty much reflected that, with the notable exception of one lady who, wavering on the point of Corbyn’s leadership, was won over by Zeichner’s strong local record and Huppert’s votes under the coalition. If the local results are anything to go by, however, the area will probably stay Lib Dem.

More recently, I canvassed in Romsey. Known as ‘Red Romsey’, the area has become a strong Labour patch after some years of real Lib Dem strength in the area. Interestingly, Corbyn did not figure so much on this side of Cambridge: only one voter mentioned the leader, and he was quite evidently never going to vote Labour. The Lib Dem voters I spoke to were more interested in policy than in personalities. One voter cited his preference for Lib Dem economics, another voter curiously cited the NHS as her reason (not a reason that comes up very often for voting Lib Dem!). Overall, I would expect Romsey to stay red on the 8th.

Canvassing in Newnham and Romsey, I began to notice some more general points about the nature of Lib Dem and Labour support. Newnham ward is famously an academics’ neighbourhood. Romsey, a neighbourhood most students will be unfamiliar with, has more of a working-class feel. I’d rather not draw crude dichotomies, but it did seem interesting that the core of Lib Dem support seems to be amongst academics and those more associated with the university. We might speculate this has something to do with their ‘48% strategy’: great appeal for academic-types, but perhaps less so for those in Romsey, even for those who did vote Remain. And here seems the great truth of this election, echoed up and down the country: Brexit figures surprisingly little on the doorstep. I suspect this might have something to do with the Lib Dem’s poor showing in the national polls.

"Every member of every political party has a responsibility to respond to the concerns of all in society"

But to finish, I’d like to talk about one group it seems everyone is neglecting in Cambridge. I had the pleasure of speaking to one voter for a good ten minutes or so. He was a proudly and self-consciously working-class man, but not the kind of working-class man dreamt into being by some on the left.

He spoke to me about patriotism, his community, and his hopes for an economy that will provide for his kids. He also told me about his family history: how his parents had always voted Labour until 1979, when they voted Conservative for the first time. Anyone who knows their British history will know that they were not by any means an isolated case.

Now, this man was by no means hostile to Labour or its values. He was extremely alarmed by the prospect of Corbyn as PM, but he said he’d wish him well if he won. Though I think his concern with Corbyn should be taken at face value, I suspect his reasons for not voting Labour extend further. The reason why this man wasn’t going to vote Labour was because Labour wasn’t and isn’t trying to speak to him.

A social democratic party worth its salt, it seems to me, should be doing everything it can to speak to and appeal to people like him, a working-class man. It might be the case that in Cambridge, voters like him won’t matter that much in the end. But nationally – they do. I’m obviously delighted with recent polls and can only hope they’re proved correct. But if Corbyn can begin to reach out beyond his natural base to people like this man, that would be a real achievement that I would admire. 

Cambridge is split between the Lib Dems and LabourWikimedia Commons

After all, democracy is about representing, not merely evangelising. For sure, principles and ideals might be what gets you out there onto the doorstep in the first place. But once there, we must listen as well as argue. Persuading those least inclined to agree with us is the true mark of success.

What does this all mean for Cambridge? I do wonder if the fate of Huppert might be in Romsey. The area was Lib Dem from 2005 to 2015, broadly coinciding with Lib Dem control of the Westminster seat. This is only a suggestion – but without a resurgence in neighbourhoods like Romsey, perhaps Huppert’s university-directed charm offensive will prove misdirected. The university accounts for most of Cambridge’s wealth, but does it account for most of the city’s voters? This, it seems, might be the question of the campaign